Pembroke Research Seminar

The Pembroke Research Seminar



Student Fellowship

Student Fellowship


2018-2019 Pembroke Research Seminar
"What Are Human Rights? Imperial Origins, Curatorial Practices and Non-Imperial Ground"
Seminar Leader Ariella Azoulay, Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media

“750,000,000 clamoring for human rights” (DuBois in 1945).

The discourse of human rights and curatorial practices are two technologies that date back to the invention of the “New World.” Deviating from a tradition that studies human rights as a distinct discourse with its own history, whose origins are Europeans and can be located in the 18th century revolutions (Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière), the nineteen seventies with the proliferation of NGO’s (Samuel Moyn), or the end of WWII and the foundation of the UN (Marc Mazower), and from the tradition that limits the study of curatorial practices to designated indoor spaces, the seminar will develop a wide historical perspective and pose a set of ontological and political questions.

From its inception the discourse of human rights was intimately linked with curatorial practices, which were used to intervene in the material worlds of other people and affect their ways of handlingobjects, organizing their shared spaces and exercising their rights. Looking at the ways these two technologies were linked and entangled would enables a shift from the (visual or textual) representation of human rights to their political ontology and ask what are rights, are they divisible or shared, who is entitled to grant them and receive them? With the implementation of a “new world order” in the wake of WWII, these technologies have been intensively used and reaffirmed and the link between them consolidated on the international arena and within many individual states. With the foundation of the UN came also the founding of its educational, scientific and cultural agency, UNESCO. The political bodies of the UN were responsible for reaffirming and standardizing the discourse and practices of self-determination and human rights, while UNESCO was responsible for the standardization of technologies of “rescue,” preservation, display and circulation of art. How are these two functions and their technologies connected? What might curation have to do with human rights? What are these technologies? What do they seek to institutionalize and what do they foreclose? How do they operate? What do they generate? What were the other discourses and practices of rights and art that they sought to replace?

The seminar will look beyond the usual canonical texts, treatises and declarations of rights which have been recognized as foundational for this discourse and its histories. We will look for and analyze different types of rights claims (strikes, sit ins, squatting, occupation of public spaces etc), and different thinkers, many of whom have not been considered part of this discourse. We will collaborate in developing a “non-imperial approach” to the question of rights, one that looks at rights in the context of worlds made of objects. Using multiple non-canonical sources and studying non imperial rights claims, we will ask what becomes of human rights when “the many” (in Hannah Arendt’s sense of this term) participate in reflecting on their rights as a way to care for the common world and also articulate their human rights through the very practice of claiming them. The seminar will seek to identify patterns of political imagination, aspiration, right claims, discourses, and practices of millions of people who are not counted, who have been historically ignored or discounted and their claims repressed. In the course of this work, we will question common definitions and formations of human rights along with their ontological, political, and legal presuppositions. We will ask how the variety of discourses and practices of rights were colonized, if not fully erased by the current hegemonic discourse of human rights? How were curatorial practices used in order to solidify this hegemony? How have rights continued to be claimed outside and against this hegemony? By whom? And where? And how might the rights and their curation still be used or understood otherwise?

Particular attention will be given to the ways in which these two technologies were linked, used and disseminated at the end of WWII for preempting and repressing claims for reparations, indemnification, compensation, and equality, claims which were – and continue to be - voiced by people whose territories were invaded, colonized, and plundered. We will study a variety of calls for reparations and restitutions together with a series of treaties, declarations, agreements and exhibitions produced as part of the effort to neutralize calls for reparations and effectively undermine the power to imagine political and civil formations that deviated from those dictated by the new world order which the allied imposed.

Studying these technologies, their use and spread, we will also explore their potential reversibility through various attempts to preserve and generate non-imperial platforms, knowledge and practices. What were those or what might they have been? Exercising a kind of counter-curatorial power, we will explore a variety of materials such as photographs, art objects, manifestos, founding documents, maps, manuals for curating visual content and for preparing itinerant exhibitions, charters, declarations, museums, and archives. We will approach them as both sources and tools, experiment in undoing and reversing their meanings, and use them to narrate potential histories, reassess contemporary and historical claims for reparations, and imagine reversals of disenfranchisement and dispossession.

We invite applications from scholars working in all disciplines and fields, including Anthropology, Philosophy, Literary Studies, Classics, History of Art, Cinema and Media Studies, Music, Gender and Women’s Studies, Science Studies, Religious Studies, and across all historical periods and traditions.

The Pembroke Research Seminar meets on Wednesdays, from 10:00 am – 12:30 pm.

For more information contact: or phone 401-863-2643

To Apply for... Submission Deadline
Award Date
Postdoctoral Fellowship 
in Residence

December 7, 2017
11:59 pm EST

March, 2018

Brown Faculty 
Research Fellowship

January 18, 2018

February, 2018

Graduate Student 
Research Fellowship

March 15, 2018

April, 2018

Undergraduate Student 
Research Fellowship

March 15, 2018

April, 2018

Seminar Leadership Closed Closed